Last weekend, the Rocklands Farm in Poolesville, Maryland gave the boot to Richard Spencer and his white nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, midway through their scheduled conference. “Throughout our history of hosting private events, we have never had to ask a group to leave,” the owners’ statement read. “However, yesterday, November 19, we discovered that a private event held here was, in reality, a gathering of an organization that is strongly in opposition to our values.”
For the self-proclaimed founder of the so-called alt right, it was merely the latest in a series of humiliations.
Since a “Unite the Rally” in Charlottesville that left one counter-protester dead, Spencer has waged an aggressive PR campaign to prove that his movement is not a loose collection of violent racists and misogynists, but a band of political revolutionaries with a radical new vision for the future. Those efforts have failed, punctuated by his embarrassing speech at the University of Florida, where he was shouted off the stage by students and anti-fascist activists.
As in Charlottesville, the engagement ended in mayhem, with three fascists from Spencer’s inner circle opening fire on a group of demonstrators at a bus stop following an exchange of words. Earlier this month, the Huffington Post reported that the $10,565 check Spencer used to book the speaking engagement at Gainesville had bounced.
The Pepe brigade is unlikely to enjoy the kind of exposure it did during the 2016 election. But if the history of white supremacist movements and recent mass shootings are any indication, the alt right’s rapid decline holds the potential for further acts of violence in the years to come.
Disintegration and Mass Murder
Spencer’s fall from grace, coupled with the alt right’s growing disillusionment with the Trump administration, recently prompted a call on the movement’s website, Altright.com, for a “leaderless resistance.”
The term has a long and complicated history, but it was a favorite slogan of Texas Ku Klux Klan leader, Louis Beam A high official in the Knights of the Klan during the 1970s, Beam helped guide the rise of David Duke, whose leisure suits and boyish looks put a more polite face on the Klan’s racism. The Knights collapsed in 1979 amid a scandal involving the sale of membership lists and pseudonymously authored texts, but its members would join paramilitary groups affiliated with the Aryan Nations and other white supremacist organizations.
During that time, Beam helped inspire a group of white nationalist militants calling themselves the Bruders Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood), or the “Order,” which would commit a string of armed robberies and murders from September 1983 to December 1984 when its leader, Robert Mathews, was killed. Following the Order’s demise, “leaderless resistance” follower and former Klan leader Tom Metzger linked older white nationalist groups to new knots of fascist skinheads emerging in the U.S. as part of a “Chicago strategy.”
Toward this end, Metzger created the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), turning fascist skinheads into “frontline soldiers” in the coming race war. Working with decentralized neo-Nazi gangs in primarily urban areas, Metzger envisioned the skinhead phenomenon as a way of creating a militant working class that could battle encroaching multiculturalism.
His vision was short-lived. Metzger was soon implicated in the racially motivated murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw, and a million-dollar civil rights lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center effectively destroyed his organization. With the Klan, the Order and WAR torn asunder, a vacuum emerged in white nationalist organizing.
A new opportunity presented itself when federal agents botched a raid on the compound of Aryan Nations supporter Randy Weaver. Metzger and Beam converged in Estes Park, Colorado with other white nationalist leaders hoping to use Weaver’s case as an opportunity to reorient the movement toward local militias concerned about gun control and supranational governance. Inspired by the Weavers and the growth of the militia movement, Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb at the Edward R. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people in the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil.
The Alt Right’s Trail of Blood
The decade between the Oklahoma City bombing and the emergence of the alt right saw a massive growth in United States militias, which the Tea Party movement had made a radical wing of the Republican Party. The alt right shared similar politics of anti-interventionism abroad, but offered a more explicitly racist and misogynistic platform on the one hand, and an “edgier,” more youthful face on the other.
Rather than pushing conservative family values, it used tactics more typically associated with the left in what Pat Buchanan famously dubbed the “culture wars.” The alt right seized social media, internet message boards, podcasts and other web 2.0 opportunities to disseminate its far-right ideas to younger generations, all the while peddling white identity politics to shield itself from accusations of bigotry. The movement also adopted a more academic white nationalism, born of the “European New Right” and “identitarian” street movements, and finally brought stateside by figures like Richard Spencer. While antifascist groups recognized the violence of their rhetoric immediately, the alt right’s platitudes about free speech opened up space for a fair hearing in the press.
In January, clashes at demonstrations hit a fever pitch when a Trump supporter shot an unarmed anti-fascist protester outside of a Milo Yiannopoulos speaking engagement in Seattle. Racially motivated attacks, including the killing of a First Nations woman struck by a trailer hitch, Alexandre Bissonnette’s massacre of six people in a Canadian mosque, Adam Purinton’s murder of two Indian men, the torching of a Toronto mosque and the shooting of a Sikh man in Seattle continued throughout the winter.
On March 20, James Harris Jackson stabbed a man to death in New York City with a sword, claiming he “intended to kill as many black men as he could.” Jackson was seemingly radicalized online by sources controlled by Richard Spencer like the National Policy Institute and the Radix Journal. Dylann Roof followed a similar trajectory, opening fire on a Charleston Church after being “red-pilled” on false race and crime statistics by the Council of Conservative Citizens. The innocuous-sounding CofCC belies a white nationalist political project that uses alt right leader Jared Taylor as its spokesperson and has hosted leading figures on the far right.
Despite its claims of “free speech,” the alt right has developed a fighting culture increasingly focused on tactical street operations. On April 15, riots broke out in Berkeley when demonstrations against alt right publicist Milo Yiannopoulos led to the cancellation of a planned speaking event and ensuing “free speech” rally by white supremacists. Groups that attended, including members of the violent Rise Above Movement and far-right evangelical Patriot Prayer returned to their bases in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest respectively to apply pressure to local communities through coordinated acts violence.
In Berkeley and at subsequent rallies from Boston to Portland, Oregon, the alt right secured the support of Patriot groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, while maintaining a semi-protective membrane of “alt light” groups and media figures who lent legitimacy to the movement by distancing themselves from the open racism at its core.
Meanwhile, the killing continued. As Richard Spencer’s face was being splashed across the front pages of major newspapers across the U.S., appalling acts of violence cemented the alt right’s reputation among activists. On April 28, less than two weeks after the Berkeley clashes, a Trump supporter attacked college liberals with a machete on Transylvania University’s campus in Kentucky. Two days later, a racially motivated mass shooting at a pool party in San Diego left one dead and six injured, followed by the brutal May 5 beating of a man in South Beach and a May 20 arson attack on a black family in upstate New York. The next week, Patriot Prayer supporter and “free speech” advocate Jeremy Christian murdered two and critically injured one on a MAX train in Portland, Oregon. That same month, a Timothy McVeigh supporter and member of the alt right group “Atomwaffen” in Florida murdered his two roommates; police found bomb-making materials in his garage.
Through June and July, activists like the Proud Boys staged violent demonstrations, harassed minority communities and attacked left-wing marches, rallies and meetings. While the collective maintained its distance from the more militant fascists in the alt right, it adopted their informal dress code (Fred Perry polo shirts) and white nationalist rhetoric, forging a “military division” called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, led by Kyle Chapman and Augustus Sol Invictus. Guns became increasingly prevalent at white nationalist rallies, as evidenced by the multiple high-power firearms Christopher Cantwell displayed during Vice Media’s recent documentary about the Charlottesville rally. Despite the threats these groups posed, mainstream media continued to provide them a platform in the name of “both sides” journalism.
It wasn’t until the murder of Heather Heyer following the Charlottesville rally in August that the press began to change its tone. The violence of the alt right had been laid bare for all to see, but the disgrace of Charlottesville did not immediately impede the movement’s ability to unite “respectable racists” at the American Renaissance, old-school white supremacists from the Council of Conservative Citizens, reactionaries and online trolls.
Not long after Charlottesville, 30 members of the alt right led by William Fears, formerly of Vanguard America, attacked an Anarchist Book Fair in Houston, Texas with smoke bombs. Members of organizations like the Black Rose Anarchist Federation held the doors, protecting conference attendants from what many feared could escalate into an act of mass violence. Just a few weeks later, Fears and two of his cohorts took aim and shot at counter-demonstrators at a nearby bus stop following Richard Spencer’s failed event at the University of Florida. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
What Happens Next
Even in deeply conservative areas of the country, white nationalist organizations struggle to find adherents, so they enlist more mainstream figures to aid in their recruitment. For years, those were paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan. More recently, they’re online pseudo-celebrities like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. When these personae self-destruct or repudiate the movements they’ve championed, refusing to go down with their more radical associates, the true believers begin to lash out in desperation. Lane Davis, a former Yiannopoulos intern dismissed by the former Breitbart editor, recently murdered his own father during a domestic dispute.
The timeline of alt right attacks over the last year reveals its hate crimes are growing in intensity, and some of the more recent incidents suggest it’s moving towards “leaderless resistance.” On November 1, Scott Ostrem was arrested for what appears to have been the racist murder of three Latinos outside of a Walmart on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. Just over a week later, on November 10, former Air Force member and Dylann Roof admirer Devin Kelley murdered 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Richard Spencer’s movement presently finds itself in a state of disintegration. As it continues to fracture, many of its members will be reabsorbed into American society, but not all of the virulent racists and misogynists it has cultivated will go quietly. The alt right has already penetrated the U.S. military and local police departments. If a splinter faction were to go underground, adopting a “leaderless resistance” aimed at “national revolution,” the alt right or whatever formation it ultimately assumes could become more deadly than ever.
So-called Anticom groups and other openly identitarian groups are already forming “defense squads” in preparation for armed conflict with the left or anyone they rightly or wrongly associate with Antifa. Many believe that “total revolution and anarchy from the likes of Bob Mathews and Tim McVeigh are the only solutions remaining,” as Order member David Lane wrote from prison in 2005. They have the training to carry out massive acts of violence, and while their movement may have stalled, autonomous acts of terror remain extraordinarily dangerous.
These are the kinds of acts Richard Spencer is ultimately inviting at college campuses across the country. As organized resistance continues to shut down his recruitment efforts, the alt right will lose the momentum and manpower needed to see through its vision. But this requires that local communities take the threat he poses seriously, even as Spencer hops around on stage, insisting that he only wants to have a conversation.